Thursday, November 19, 2009

Words of wisdom

In one interview, Brent Sutter hit the nail on the head, taking the first step in addressing an issue that has been dogging the Calgary Flames and their fans for years.

“This isn’t just something that just happened tonight. We just happened to play a very talented team tonight. This has been something that has been addressed with this group since Day 1, that there’s too much inconsistency in their game. The reason why there’s too much inconsistency in their game is because there’s too much inconsistency with individuals wanting to stay with it for 60 minutes."

“When it’s a consistent thing and you have to continue to do it to get them through it, and continue to push — is it something you like to do at this level as a head coach? No, it isn’t, but something has to be done, obviously, with this group. And as a staff we’re prepared to do that and we’ve been focused in on doing that."

“But at some point as individuals they’ve got to want to take it. They gotta want to take it and say, let’s start holding ourselves accountable, let’s start being accountable to one another. Let’s start getting a little upset with each other when guys aren’t playing well. Let’s start pushing them."

“But everything is, personally I don’t like that it’s too casual. I’m not used to it to be quite honest. I’m not used to a casual atmosphere. There needs to be a lot more emotion throughout, on a consistent basis, to want to succeed. And get upset about stuff. Don’t just take it in stride like there’s another day tomorrow.”
--Brent Sutter after the Flames' 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, Flames Insider

This comes only a day after reports of a heated argument between Coach Sutter and Dion Phaneuf surfaced after the Flames' 3-2 loss to the Avalanche, and less than day after Brent Sutter reassured the media that lack of passion and emotion was not an issue in the Flames' dressing room.

Before this article was even written, Olli Jokinen illustrated his coach's point perfectly after the morning skate by saying this:

"I think I have seven or eight times I hit the post so far this year, if half of those would’ve gone in, nobody would be questioning anything."

Instead of acknowledging that he has to play better, work harder, make a conscious effort to get more involved in the game, Olli Jokinen blames the innocent red metal goal post for his failings.

This was supposed to change.

Mike Keenan was hired to fix this.
Brent Sutter was hired to fix this.

It's about time this stops being the coach's problem to fix.

It seems unfair to generalize, to say that the players on this team don't care; obviously they want to play well and they want to win, but this team has played with a causal, almost lazy indifference for years now that should be reserved for consistently successful franchises like the Detroit Red Wings. Wins should come easy and often, and losses should be accepted by fans, no matter how bad, because we're lucky to have a winning team that makes the playoffs regularly. But even they don't stoop to this level. This team is a facade that has been parading around the league with a sense of entitlement and a sparkling 12-6-2 record that they arguably don't deserve, and the Blackhawks exposed that tonight.

The fact that this Flames team has not beaten a team above them in the standings speaks volumes, and the 7-1 blowout loss they suffered at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks should be considered flattering.

The Blackhawks are a team that is perhaps the polar opposite of the Flames, despite the fact that they sit only two points above them in the Western Conference standings. The Hawks are an original six franchise with a history of success. After years of losing and slipping attendance figures, this team has worked its way back to the top by building a culture of hard-working, youthful enthusiasm composed of energetic players willing to do whatever it takes to win.

The Blackhawks are young and simply excited to be playing in the NHL, in front of a rejuvinated fan base, and they don't take anything for granted. They will punish you for being lazy and indifferent with their speed, strength, and sheer determination, just like they have done to the Flames. In 2004, a Flames team lacking talent and star power made it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final on a foundation of consistent effort and team work. I shudder to think what this far younger, more talented Chicago team is capable of.

So what can we do to change this? Is it going to take years of being Western Conference cellar-dwellers for a Blackhawks-esque Flames team to emerge? What will it possibly take to make these players, supposedly the best of the best, understand? To motivate them to be better night in and night out, to want to play and win for each other?

An NHL head coach shouldn't have to drill these basic elements of the game into the heads of his players before and after every game. Until this is no longer necessary, the Flames cannot be considered a contending team, no matter their position in the standings.

Hockey is a team game, and sometimes you can escape with the "W" even when some players didn't chip in, but the success won't be real and it won't last long; this seems to be what the Flames are currently experiencing.

At the end of the interview, Brent Sutter delivered this cryptic blow to Flames fans that finally answered that nagging question in the back of all our minds:

(A reporter then asked if there was a problem with leadership in the dressing room.)
“There’s things that I don’t want to discuss, but I know. I know what they are. But we are trying to deal with it.
“It starts with your top players and works on down.”

It goes without saying that a loss of this magnitude is unacceptable. Players will go through the motions in the media; they'll say they're embarrassed and that they have to play better and stick to their game plan. If things improve, this game will be considered a wake-up call and a pivotal turning point in the Flames' season; if things go South, it will be considered a turning point for different reasons. The real effects of this loss will be seen in the response of the players on this team in upcoming games, specifically the "core" group.

Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr, Miikka Kiprusoff, Daymond Langkow, Craig Conroy--your leadership has been challenged. Your character has been challenged. It's up to you to respond. You either rise to the challenge or shrink away, and if the latter occurs, changes have to be made.

To top off this crap-tastic evening, Rene Bourque, one of the team's lone consistent contributors, left the game in the second period after taking a hit in the chest/shoulder area.

I don't think Blingees can bust this slump.

Why do I feel like this is only the beginning of the Flames' problems?

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